If you want to start a debate, just mention rent control. But if you want to find yourself in a battle, throw in the sharing economy.
That was the lesson last week when a Slate writer penned an article about her town’s misfortunes due to the sharing economy. Rachel Monroe, resident of Marfa, Texas, explained why Airbnb and, by extension, the sharing economy began as a godsend for the small town of Marfa (population just under 2,000) but later became the possible “cause of Marfa’s housing shortage.”
A small tourist attraction off of busy Highway 10 at the foothills of Texas’ scenic Davis Mountains, Marfa’s sole claim to fame is its extraordinary collection of art galleries and al fresco art installations. With more than eight different art galleries and museums, Marfa’s downtown has more art investment than many mid-size cities have within their city limits. Ironically however, it has no significant industry outside of its popular exhibits and art events, most of which center their attention on artists outside of Marfa and rely on vacationing art aficionados for their tourism dollars.
Of course, Marfa is also known for its historically affordable real estate. And that’s part of the problem, said Monroe. Between 2000 and 2009 at the beginning of Airbnb’s rise to fame, and Marfa residents’ discovery of peer-to-peer rental opportunities, rents in Marfa rose more than 80 percent. Economic resources, such as job growth, however, didn’t keep pace, nor did the availability of accommodations for local residents.
“[More] than a third of the population still lives in a household earning less than $20,000 a year,” said Monroe.
And that rent spike, she contends, was helped along (if not created) by the sharing economy. With carefully researched statistics about rental conditions in major cities, she showed how the conundrums that Airbnb has experienced in large metropolises like New York City and Berlin are indicators that “peer-to-peer rentals were contributing to the problem and driving up costs for long-term residents.”
But as a number of commenters asked, is Marfa’s dilemma really the fault of Airbnb? Is it really fair to blame the whole sharing economy for the rental market of a small, residential town with an average property value of less than $90,000, unemployment of 11 percent, and a minimal infrastructure to promote job growth and real estate expansion?
Equally, is it really accurate to blame an enterprising business model for the rental woes of a city that is famous for its endemic rental problems? Isn’t more likely that unaffordable housing markets are what gave fuel to the creation of Airbnb, and the infectious enthusiasm of its supporters?
By comparison, Sandpoint, deep in the rural north of Idaho, has survived as an artist haven for more than a century. It is also on Airbnb, but with per-night rentals that are more consistent with the area’s motel rates and cost of living. Most of its more affluent mountain and lakeshore offerings don’t compare to Marfa’s wide spread of prices, which includes a $3,000 a night splurge that is out of sync with local property values. My guess is that Sandpoint has learned the value of eclectic but reliable commerce that promotes job growth and stimulates varied business investment. It's also found that a business community that is patronized by locals, as well as business and vacationing visitors is an added benefit to a community driven by tourism dollars.
But the stunning takeaway message of Monroe’s article was the response it received in the comment section. American readers are clearly not ready to surrender the sharing economy as a failed experiment. With more than 170 comments amassed in four days (most in favor of the virtues of a collaborative economy structure), Marfa's heart-wrenching story serves ironically, as an advocate for the diversity and entrepreneurial spirit that today's peer-to-peer supporters love most.
Companies like Airbnb, FlightCar, Lyft and the Australian concept WeTeachMe have survived not because cities like New York have defined their usefulness, but because the sharing economy supports business’s No. 1 motto: The customer always has the last say.
Image of Marfa: Daniel Schwen
Image of Prada Marfa Gallery: Andy Price
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.